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Transactional Leadership Theories

Technical Details

Name(s): Transactional Leadership Theories
Author: Many throughout History, more recently: Max Weber and Bernard M. Bass
Classification: Theories based on transactions
Year: 1970s


  • Transactional leadership theories are simplistic and easy to administer.
  • The central idea is relatively straightforward to convey to subordinates: obey or else.
  • There is minimal need in the short run to train leaders; tell people to obey or else.
  • It is much more effortless to parcel out rewards and punishments, inasmuch as the criterion for doing so is how well a person obeys.
  • Complexity endemic to hierarchies is minimized, as in the simplicity of rules and defining human relationships.
  • The transactional leadership theories takes advantage of well-known and tested ideas (Pavlov and Skinner for example) of human responses, especially in times of need.
  • Transactional leadership theories are not hindered with the complexity of differences in intelligence, emotions, or task complexity.
  • When the ideas being imposed on a group are beneficial, the technique may be advantageous.
  • When time is of the essence, the transactional method can be very expeditious.


  • The theory assumes everyone is rational; it disregards emotions and social values.
  • It presumes people are always motivated by rewards and punishments. It ignores altruism or will to power.
  • It may be used to exploit people.
  • When the demand for workers exceeds the supply, the leader does not have as much control, being that the subordinate has the ability to simply walk away from the situation when s/he is well off.
  • It has not been demonstrated to be the most effective leadership method in lesser stressful situations.
  • It is an undignified form of leadership and an insult to human capabilities.
  • Transactional leadership theories does not cultivate people; it does not bring out the best in people, but subjugates them.
  • The theories encourages destructive competition and in the long-run can impair an organization, especially from the inside.
  • An organization can become dependent upon one or a few leaders; if the leadership disappears, it will be more difficult to replace it.


Punishment and reward motivate people and this underpins transactional leadership theories. There must be a well-defined hierarchy, where everyone knows who the leader is and who is following. When people are in agreement about the need within the organizational structure to do a task or reach goals through objectives, there is the understanding that they are to recognize the leader and each organizational member releases all independence and sovereignty. The subordinates need only to obey their leader; nothing more is required. Whether they can actually accomplish the task is irrelevant. An overlap exists between transactional leadership theories and contingency leadership theories in that both aver that the circumstances, or context, dictate leadership style. In the case of the latter, a subordinate's position depends upon performance. In a laissez-faire economy, a person seeking employment implies that the employee subordinates all rights to the leaders of the organization for which s/he is to work.


Transactional leadership theories are among the most controversial in that they hone hierarchical boundaries and are inherently undemocratic. In the most developed form, they describe totalitarian dictatorship. A leader or manager points her or his finger and says "do it - no questions asked". The method is predicated upon behavioralism, the most stark of which is the Pavlovian response. If one presents a dog with food, accompanied by the sound of a bell and the dog usually will salivate before eating. After a fashion, one need only to ring the bell and the dog will salivate even in the absence of food. We know this to be a conditioned response. Abraham Maslow [1], among others has found that people have hierarchies of needs (physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-actualization) and the transactional leader takes advantage of these in presenting them as rewards to a following that does the leader's bidding. When a person is sycophantic, s/he will be rewarded. Maslow stated that self-actualization was the highest value and that this would make a transactionally-based leader's job even easier. For a population who has its physical needs taken care of, simply providing printed certificates and coin medals proves to be a rather inexpensive manner of leading. Of course, for a fear of punishment, the boss or leader merely has to hold unemployment over the head of a recalcitrant one or in an extreme situation in tyrannical environments, there is always starvation, torture, or execution. However, physical needs need to be satisfied first and foremost. To get to that point of self-actualization, people require more than just their basic needs satisfied. It is the anticipation of the reward - much like Pavlov's dog - that keeps a person obedient. B.F. Skinner in the 1950s refined Pavlovian theory as a broadly-based behavior modification technique. His view was that effective communities could be developed by a rewards-punishment leadership style.

History is littered with the deleterious consequences of transactional leadership, from Caligula to most recently Muammar Gaddafi. In fact, cave inhabitants would have been all too familiar with the theory, albeit not so-named. Looking to the animal world, it is easy to see that dominance is predicated upon expectation. An animal knows that if it gets out of line, it may be driven out of the pack or eaten. It does not take highly neural development for an animal to realize this. Transactional leadership in the most primitive of human forms translates as slavery. Hence, a leader takes advantage of a very primitive instinct and conditioning, as exemplified by Pavlov's experiments. A notorious example of leaders using transactional leadership theories (though often not realizing it, of course) is the Mafia. Not much needs to be said here, as even in popular culture, the form of leadership is depicted quite accurately and has been borne out by gang hits, many times in public view.

A modern rendition of transactional leadership theories can be found in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. In an allegorical fashion, Hobbes states that people originally are in a state of nature, in which there is a war of all against all. People realize that they can come together and give up their independence in exchange for security [2]. A transactional leader plays upon this, the assumption being that when a person is hired, s/he gives up her/his independence in exchange for the security of work. This means no unions, privileges or any leeway except that given by the leader, manager or other boss. Various rationales are given, besides security in exchange of giving up freedom. John Locke's First Treatise of Civil Government eloquently tore apart the Divine Right of Kings, where kings received their guidance from "God". Populations, as stated by Locke, are endowed with natural rights and could protect their own persons, including defending themselves against the transgression of a king.

What justifications can be found for transactional leadership theories? For a leader, this is easy: I rule and I know best. We have advanced a great distance since the Divine Right of Kings, but one can look to classical Greek history for supporting intelligence and philosophy in leadership. Plato in his Republic argued that virtue is or should be one of the highest qualities in a human being. A person does her or his best at what s/he is capable. Carpenters are the best at working with wood. Doctors do their best at treating people. A person knows her or his place. Maslow gave a modern version of this by saying, "What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization" [3]. Hence, the one that is most fit to rule is someone who is adept at ruling, and this means someone with a high sense of values, intelligence, and an appropriate personality. For Plato the highest value is philosophy. The ideal rule is a philosopher queen or king, someone who not only has a proclivity but an upbringing in the love of wisdom. Many persons who have read George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 are surprised to learn that, despite the writer's antipathy to totalitarian dictatorships; he also did not have a very high opinion of the masses. In his 1946 review in the New English Weekly of James Burnham's Managerial Revolution, Orwell presented what we can consider as a nuts and bolts version of transaction leadership theories:

In effect, therefore, humanity is divided into two classes: the self-seeking, hypocritical minority and the brainless mob whose destiny is always to be led or driven, as one gets a pig back to the sty by kicking it on the bottom or rattling a stick inside a swill-bucket, according to the needs of the moment, with this beautiful pattern continuing forever [4].

What ethos would such a population have? A well-conditioned person who is surviving only at the behest of a powerful leader or in a system run by oligarchs may be understood in their reaction in such a manner, but there are many political philosophers, such as Locke, Rousseau and modern revolutionaries who say that organizing and fighting oppression is often critical in regaining human dignity. Such was the thinking behind union organizing in the last century which challenged the very basic tenet of transactional leadership theories.


It is not difficult to find critiques of transactional leadership theories, ranging from their being inherently undemocratic to the fact that it robs a person of human dignity, to say nothing of insulting her or him. If an urgent task needs to be accomplished in a short period of time with no time to pace people through the rationale, there may be some justification. However, in the situation where the people can understand, there is less opportunity. In the long-run, there may be an over-reliance on a transactional leader and if something happens to that leader, the integrity of the organization may be jeopardized. Participation in decision-making and having more persons capable of assuming the duties of leadership strengthens that organization. Certainly, transactional leadership theories aren't conducive to developing leaders or bringing out the best in people. Plato definitively put to rest the philosophical justification of "might makes right" in The Republic, arguing that there are higher values to be attained than can be realized by emulating basic animalistic behavior. It can be said that transactional leadership theories violate two norms of ethics, one by the famous and mainstream philosophers in ethics, Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham. Kant offered his version of the "Golden Rule" to what you would like to see universalized in the world. Would a transactional leader be willing to obey another leader of the same stripe? Bentham said that one should do what maximizes pleasure and that this should be universal. For a transactional leader, there may be pleasure in telling others what to do, but save for the masochist, obedience is not the most dignified behavior.

Future of theory

Transactional leadership has existed since the dawn of humanity, although people certainly haven't referred to it as such. Neither can apes nor other animals, but the substance certainly is the same throughout all species: obey the leader or there will be bad consequences. There is no reason to expect that this leadership technique won't be around for a long time to come, unless magic occurs and everyone becomes enlightened and philosophical, not tolerating the domination of one human being by another through the technique of holding something above the other's head. What one may expect, however is a refinement of transactional leadership. During the Korean War we learned of "brainwashing", where a person placed in sensual deprivation chambers could be made to obey. Not only was there obedience but there was an internalization of ideology, where a person would act as if the ideology were true. Terror techniques have been refined, where imposition of fear on a massive scale has become mechanized, one of the most obvious examples being Nazi Germany. Technology has become sophisticated to the point that George Orwell's dystopia is becoming reality, where surveillance of each and every individual is common place. This can be evidenced by the plethora of cameras on street corners, government buildings and businesses. Internet privacy is being constantly being challenged and biometric identification adds to the emerging specter of a totalitarian state. An individual stepping out of line can be identified readily and the full force and effect of authority can be brought to bear to make her or him conform to what leadership demands. On a micro scale, even keystrokes can be monitored and a worker can be disciplined to be more productive or else be threatened with job loss. Leadership theories aren't only simple theoretical models, but one needs to understand them, not only in terms of their assumptions, but how they are being translated into reality.

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